By Todd Scott
Photos by AJ Manoulian Vanessa Miller Geronimo Patton/Heidelberg Project Archives.
With its humble beginnings as a French outpost in 1701, the city of Detroit, Michigan has seen more than its share of booms and busts. A century of modest growth ended with the great fire of 1805, which gave the city its motto: ‘We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes’, a motto that remains valid more than two centuries later.
But while Detroit looks to move forward through today’s hard times, it’s also looking back. Certainly, alternative energy, new vehicles and medicine are the future, as are urban agriculture, streetcars and bicycling.
And for most residents outside the city’s boundaries, it’s a tough sell to imagine Detroit – a metonym for the American auto industry – as a great bicycle city rather than just the “Motor City.” For those living within the city limits, there’s a growing recognition that this is one of America’s best urban biking environments. Even David Byrne lists Detroit among his top eight favorite biking cities in the “Great rides where you least expect it” category.
Wide Open Roads
Detroit has the basic ingredients for bike-friendliness. The terrain is flat and the streets are in well-formed grids. From here, though, Detroit’s path to bike-friendliness doesn’t follow the commonly accepted route.
This is a city with a road network built for nearly two million residents. It later invested heavily in a well-connected urban expressway system that pulled vehicles from the main arterials. Then a million residents left the city to sprawl across the suburbs.
Unlike most other cities where traffic engineers struggle to carve separated biking areas from busy roads, Detroit’s streets have excess travel lanes. Motown cyclists may not always have their own four-foot bike lane, but they often have their own 10-foot vehicle lane – or two. With the same amount of car traffic, a five-lane road in many cities is a seven- or nine-lane road in Detroit.
Still, Detroit is investing in bike facilities to encourage more riding. In 2008, the city council passed an ambitious non-motorized transportation plan that called for nearly 400 miles (643.7 kilometers) of bike lanes, nearly all of which were to be created through road diets. That plan’s implementation is underway with 30-some miles of new bike lanes planned for 2010 alone.
Cassandra Spratling, a newspaper reporter who enjoys riding to work and to Belle Isle, says “there’s a misconception that these city streets are bad for biking. The opposite is true. The key is knowing the streets with the least traffic.”
Growing Trail Network
There has been a substantial public and private investment in off-road bicycle facilities too. There are a dozen non-profit organizations planning, developing and maintaining trails within Detroit. These organizations – along with government officials and other stakeholders – meet on a regular basis as the Detroit Greenways Coalition. The Coalition has developed a 70-plus mile (112.6 kilometer) interconnected greenway network vision. A couple of the highlights are the existing RiverWalk and Dequindre Cut trails. There are also plans to run a trail from the river to Eight Mile and an ambitious greenway that would loop around the entire city.